On a rainy, gray Friday morning in a Newport Beach parking lot, a bunch of well-behaved parochial school students, uniforms and all, climbed aboard buses.
This was not your ordinary Catholic school outing, mind you. This was the University of Notre Dame’s football team, which plays today for the right to be called No. 1 in all the land, Catholic or otherwise.
It was about the time the buses headed out that the rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sun shone, drying the path before them.
Now this is a team with influence in high places.
“We find out tomorrow if God is a Catholic,” quipped Notre Dame alumnus Bob Williams as he manned the hospitality table for the old-fashioned pep rally in a ballroom of the Anaheim Marriott Hotel. Williams estimates that the Orange County Notre Dame Club, host of the party, numbers about 750 members.
“We’ve swelled a lot (in membership) in the last couple weeks with the No. 1 thing,” he said.
For the uninitiated, “the No. 1 thing” is the No. 1 ranking among all college football teams--something that the odds makers expect to change after today’s game with the No. 2-ranked USC Trojans.
The Fighting Irish, their helmets shimmering like so many golden cathedral domes, were delivered by bus to Corona del Mar High School, a few forward passes from where the team was staying at the Newport Beach Marriott.
At the high school field, a crowd gathered as the hulking young bulls made guttural sounds and tossed the old pigskin around.
There were fanatics with cameras and Notre Dame sweat shirts and caps:
“We have 14 tickets,” said Kevin Welsh, a high school principal from Los Angeles who had his suitably attired children, Kelly, 11, Kevin, 9, and Katie, 6, in tow.
“The entire Welsh clan is rolling in from all over the country,” he said. “We booked five rooms” at the Anaheim Marriott.
There were the fans:
“I like them better than the University of Spoiled Children,” said Jennifer Sixt, 17, in a not-so-veiled reference to the Los Angeles-based private school that will line up against Notre Dame today.
And there were the converts, so to speak:
“Are you a Notre Dame fan?” a reporter asked.
“I am now, " said a laughing Ron Davis, Corona del Mar High athletic director, honored that his field was chosen for the Fighting Irish practice.
As Davis watched the players run through their drills, he chatted with Wade Watts, retired Newport Harbor football coach and--get this--the high school football coach of Notre Dame’s head coach, Lou Holtz.
Watts, who said he had breakfast with Holtz on Friday, looked across the playing field where many Notre Dame players seemed to be having a good time as well as a workout.
“I don’t think they’d be doing that if Lou were here,” Watts said. Holtz was noticeably absent from the practice session.
At the opposite end of the field and of the experience spectrum, 17-year-old Matt Stone, a Corona del Mar football player, also watched. Stone’s team also had a big game scheduled Friday night with Anaheim in the quarterfinals of the high school playoffs.
“They wished us luck on our game,” Stone said.
Then, as he eyed the jovial Notre Damers, Stone offered this analysis: “To me, I think they’re joking around too much.”
Would he like to scrimmage these guys?
“No,” snapped Stone, who is about the size of Notre Dame’s cheerleaders. “I’m 5-9 1/2 and 160. . . . Scrimmaging these guys would be hell.”
Michael Kane would have settled to see these guys, but he drove up after the buses pulled away to return the players to their hotel.
“I guarantee you we’ll win by 10 points,” boasted Kane, a Newport Beach contractor.
Then Kane and Welsh engaged in a mini-debate over just which one of them is the bigger fan and who between them is more Irish.
Kane had an edge, pointing to his personalized license plate: “1 IRISH1.”
“Take a look at my license plate, baby. There ain’t nobody a bigger fanatic than me,” he said.
Not to be outdone, Welsh boasted: “My wife, Lynne, is at the Anaheim Marriott and pregnant with my twins and is due any minute . . . my two Fighting Irish.”